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More than just number crunching

The game has entered a decisive stage. Tomorrow, if the voting is as per the numbers on the board and if Mulayam delivers the support of the MPs he has promised, the government is through, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Jul 21, 2008 00:43 IST
Pankaj Vohra

The Congress-led UPA government is fighting for survival with its back to the wall. The irony is that party managers who ruled the roost for the last four- and-a-half years and virtually alienated the loyal cadres are facing the biggest test of their life after failing to put forward a sound strategy to deal with the current political crisis. For the first time they also face the prospect of being fully exposed before the party leadership for their mediocre ability in dealing with difficult situations. But the exposure, if it happens in the event of the UPA losing the vote, will be too late.

The true situation is that the Congress and the UPA have the numbers on their side. What they do not have are people who can ensure that these numbers do not fritter away because those who have mattered in the party all these years do not know how to tackle those who will matter on Tuesday. The situation is so grim that only a conscience vote by the majority of MPs cutting across party lines can see this government through. But another great irony is that though there may be large sections in Parliament who may want to endorse the Indo-US deal, the floor test is turning out to be an extension of power politics both within the Congress/UPA and also in the NDA and its possible allies. The deal has precipitated a power struggle that could eject this government and also bring together forces wanting to somehow corner Sonia Gandhi unless the MPs take it upon themselves and save the day.

If the government wins the trust vote that it could have easily avoided by handling the situation better — and through using parliamentary procedures to its advantage — the Congress may project the victory as a referendum for the nuclear deal. But the fact is that while the deal has a wide support in the House, the tussle is more about who will remain on centre-stage in the 15th Lok Sabha. Most of the MPs in the 14th Lok Sabha do not want elections right now. But they also want to ensure that they return to the House when the parliamentary polls take place. It is important for them to be on the side of those who can get them back, rather than what their belief about the nuclear deal is. The game is about realpolitik, not about who has the numbers on paper.

The strategy that has been adopted by some of the government's supporters is faulty for several reasons. While everyone knows that Manmohan Singh is the Prime Minister of the Congress-led government, some wise alecks in the PMO have been trying to create an impression that seeks to draw a distinction between him on the one hand and the party on the other. Selective news leaks and wrongly timed briefings that do not resonate with what the Congress is doing have done more harm to the PM than help him. It is to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s credit that they have tried to make up for these discordant notes by putting their full weight behind Singh.

But what the PM’s and the Congress President’s supporters have to be cautious about is a possible gameplan that may be introduced in the event of the government losing the trust vote. The situation that could well arise will be based on the assumption that a Prime Minister who loses the vote of confidence in a floor test cannot ask for the dissolution of the House. In case the government is defeated, the President, before arriving at an appropriate decision, may explore whether any political party or formation is in any position to form an alternate government and have the required numbers. This could certainly provide an opportunity to some senior leaders to realise their unfulfilled ambitions. If any of them can convince the President that he or she has the support of a majority of members, an alternate PM — even if for a few months — could be in place.

This is not to suggest that this government is going to lose the trust vote. But in politics, one has to be prepared for any eventuality. For instance, there are sections in the House who hope that the Akali members exercise their conscience vote and support the PM on the floor of the House by either voting for him or abstaining. Many other such unexpected things may happen and few UPA members may also vote with the NDA or vice versa.

Some Congress leaders are also caught in a dilemma. They are not sure whether they will get any credit if they help in getting members from other parties into the UPA for the purpose of voting tomorrow. They fear that like in the past, for all good things a small coterie will take the credit for any success and shift the blame to others if there is failure. And if money has to play a role, then any Congress leader who spends fears that he will be tarnished with a black brush while Manmohan Singh continues to look like the leader he is: a PM with unimpeachable integrity. In addition, the MP’s detractors will try to malign him before the Congress President by stating that he had so much money but had never contributed to the party fund, etc. The short point is that many Congress MPs may use the occasion to force a course correction in the party that has not come despite their best efforts in the past.

The game has entered a decisive stage. Tomorrow, if the voting is as per the numbers on the board and if Mulayam Singh Yadav delivers the support of the MPs he has promised, the government is through. Otherwise, a period of instability will begin. Between us.